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INTRODUCTION TO THOMAS HOBBES

In this article, Robert Kraynak explores how Thomas Hobbes could be responsible both for affirming the supreme power of the state against appeals to a higher law and for the idea that there are basic human rights that all states must recognize. The answer lies in Hobbes’s novel account of human life as having no ultimate purpose and as consisting in a constant power struggle—a marked contrast to traditional Aristotelian moral theory. This means that, first, the state must be very powerful in order to keep people under control and must not be weakened by belief in a higher natural law. Second, it is impossible for the state to achieve the greatest good for man because no such good exists. Rather, the state should strive for the minimal goal of preserving order and protecting the most basic rights, in particular the right to life. Hobbes then redefines natural law as that which preserves natural rights. This then provides groundwork for the idea of the modern liberal state, limited in its power insofar as it is not permitted to violate certain human rights.